Narford Hall, Norfolk


see source

On April 28, 1733, a calamitous blaze took hold on the premises of White’s Chocolate-house – later to become exclusive gentlemen’s club, White’s – in Mayfair, central London. The incident would feature in the sixth of the eight images which comprise ‘A Rake’s Progress‘ (1733-34), William Hogarth’s series of paintings and wildly popular engravings. ‘The Gaming House’ (right) sees Tom Rakewell, the hero of Hogarth’s morality tale, losing all (again). And for one contemporary art lover in particular this scene would have held an acute resonance.

For long-time local resident Sir Andrew Fountaine had stored a significant slice of his prodigious collection of art and antiquities in the upper rooms of White’s in the first months of 1733 ahead of imminent retirement to his country seat, Narford Hall in Norfolk. Among other things, the greatest accumulation of miniatures then in private hands would be lost to Fountaine (and national art heritage) in the fire.


see: Philadelphia Museum of Art

But the renowned connoisseur still remained possessed of plenty including an earlier William Hogarth ‘conversation piece’ of c.1729 featuring Sir Andrew (centre), his sister, niece and the latter’s future husband, Fountaine’s ‘right-hand man in collecting’, Capt. William Price. X-rays and a near-contemporaneous copy of this picture confirm that the satisfied figure of Andrew’s younger brother and then likely heir, Brigg, originally also featured, recumbent in the foreground.1 ‘An ignorant, worthless scoundrel-rake’ in the estimation of Fountaine’s close friend, Jonathan Swift, this particular rake’s progress would terminate some seven years before the death of his brother, his likeness subsequently painted over.

The doctored Hogarth is now in an American gallery, part of a steady stream of contents sales over the past 135 years that has seen the collections which gave this place renown significantly denuded and Narford Hall beat a C20th retreat into mildly notorious obscurity. “The most beautiful room in England” (in the view of one who has seen more such places than most) remains largely intact, however. Still the private home of the Fountaine family, ‘barely disturbed archives’ preserve the fascination of perhaps the least documented Grade I house in the land.2


see: Google Maps

Displaying quite differently in each of its principal aspects, Narford Hall’s distinct irregularity is the product of four main phases of evolution across 150 years from the turn of the 18th century.


see: Evelyn Simak

But while the house is foremost associated with the lauded discernment of Sir Andrew Fountaine (1676-1753), Narford’s ‘beautiful 7-bay south front, of carstone with a stone-faced centre’ was in fact created for his namesake father.3 Nor was Narford the first new country house fashioned for Andrew Fountaine (1), the ambiguous manner by which he acquired the means having its roots in his remarkable relationship with a scion of the largest landowning family in the county.



see: Salle Farms

As the third son of Norfolk barrister Brigg Fountaine, young Andrew (b. 1634) was naturally at the back of the queue for the property which had been accrued by this family in the parish of Salle since the mid-14th century. (This would in due course descend to the great-granddaughter of his brother, James, whose husband, Edward Hase, built Salle Park, left, in 1761.)

At the age of 18 Fountaine was dispatched in 1655 to study for the bar at the Inner Temple where he soon formed a bond with fellow Norfolk native John Coke, two years his senior. That same year Coke suddenly became heir to his family’s considerable estate at Holkham (and elsewhere) following the death of his older brother. When he then came of age Coke unexpectedly refused to sign up to the conventional resettlement of the family estate (which would have given him life tenancy but not outright ownership), causing a lasting rift with his father.

In a further act of rebellion Coke, with Andrew Fountaine, now decided to quit the Inner Temple without passing the bar, the pair instead setting out for France and remaining abroad for almost three years. Fountaine would later maintain ‘that it was ‘at John Coke’s entreaty’ that he neglected his studies to travel but Coke family lawyers in the future had little doubt that self-interest came into play’. On their return in 1660 Coke opted to reside with the Fountaine family in Salle; his father died the following year. John Coke now became ‘the absolute owner of the Holkham estate and Andrew Fountaine the chief manager of his concerns’.4

Over the next few years ‘Coke entered into a series of transactions which substantially enriched Andrew Fountaine’ including the grant of several lucrative long-term leases at very favourable terms on various Coke estate properties. ‘The most plausible explanation is that Coke did in fact intend to make large money gifts, of £20,000 or thereabouts, to Fountaine [over time] out of income but gave them as legal interests intended as securities to protect Andrew Fountaine, after Coke’s death, from the claims of Coke’s heirs’.5

And, sure enough, a queue of eager litigants quickly formed after John Coke died unmarried in August, 1671, aged 35. Broadly, they would argue that Fountaine had exploited the loose rein afforded to him as steward to fill his own boots, conducting intended estate investments instead in a personal capacity, the most conspicuous example being Fountaine’s acquisition of the Brookmans estate in Hertfordshire in 1666. Both sides would be mired in Chancery for the next two decades.

In the meantime, Andrew Fountaine would lose his first wife in 1671 but gain another – Sarah, daughter of Sir Thomas Chicheley of Wimpole Hall – a year on.


see: North Mymms History

‘A Hertfordshire squire of unattractive habits and personality, addicted to drink and always in money difficulties, Fountaine led his wife a most wretched existence.’ Sarah nevertheless provided her husband with a son, Andrew, in 1676 and, via some serious family string-pulling, a very handy seat in parliament three years later. By 1680 the ship had seemingly steadied sufficiently to allow Fountaine to develop a new residence at Brookmans (r).

Final settlement with the Coke estate was reached in 1694, all leases and income to be surrendered by Andrew Fountaine in exchange for £10,000. ‘This sum must have helped his purchase, only a year later, of Narford, which is still the home of the Fountaines. Thus one family prospered as a result of the legal carelessness of another.’4 Brookmans was disposed of in the spring of 1702 to fund a new project:

1702 Monday 29th June I laid the first stone of my new house at Narford.”2


Though a star classical scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, under the influence of its polymath dean Henry Aldrich – ‘one of the forerunners of the Palladian movement’ – there is no evidence (as yet) that the young Andrew Fountaine (2) took a direct hand in the shaping of his father’s new house.6


NHbell2Henry Bell of King’s Lynn has been suggested and Narford’s long since removed lantern as shown in Edmund Prideaux’s west front view c.1725 (left) echoes that of Bell’s Sessions House in Northampton (r).

In fact, in that summer of 1702 the recently knighted Fountaine, Jnr. was in Italy, a diplomatic mission to the elector of Hanover (later King George I) having turned into a three-year Grand Tour ‘of unusual intellectual intensity’.7

NHcarlo And while his precocious erudition impressed all, other qualities found favour with the fairer sex at court, reducing distinguished German mathematician/philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz to undisguised fan mail. “Your wit, your good looks, or rather your beauty, remains engraved in their imagination, and makes you as much noise at Court as your learning does.”8 Fountaine’s swoonsome aspect was captured in a drawing from life by Roman master Carlo Maratta preserved at Narford.

The declining health of his father obliged a domestic focus upon Sir Andrew’s return but in the next three decades he would largely favour the stimulating swirl of city life over Norfolk. Andrew Fountaine, Snr. died in 1706; four years later his 34-year-old heir would undergo a near-death experience at his London townhouse, an episode witnessed by his good friend Jonathan Swift. That Fountaine pulled through was no thanks to his hovering relations according to the celebrated scribe:

Sir Andrew’s mother and sister are come above a hundred miles to see him before he died. I knew the mother; she is the greatest Overdo upon earth; and the sister, they say, is worse; the poor man will relapse again among them. Here was the scoundrel brother always crying in the other room till Sir Andrew was in danger; and the dog was to have all his estate if he died.

Pignatta, Giulio, 1684-1751; Sir Andrew Fountaine and Friends in the Tribune

see: Art UK

Long since returned to rude health, by 1714 Fountaine was venturing out on Grand Tour II with his now regular companion, the obscure Wiliam Price, and friends. A portrait depicting the group (Sir AF left, leaning) at ease within the octagonal Tribuna gallery of the Ufizzi in Florence was among his many souvenirs.NHinvent ‘Sir Andrew doesn’t seem to have made a record of his purchases abroad and his tours informed his later buying. An inventory of 1753 [by Price] lists a total of 3,327 prints in [just] one eleven-drawer cabinet in the Library Closet, one of the smallest rooms in Narford Hall.’8


see: Evelyn Simak @ geograph

Brimming with inspiration and acquisitions upon his return in 1717 Fountaine would soon embark on the first of two major phases of development at his Norfolk estate. A four-bay wing extending north housed a new Library, the room remaining ‘an outstanding example of an early-C18 interior, its appearance comparatively little changed’.2

This is not, however, the aforementioned ‘most beautiful room in England’, that epithet having been applied rather to Fountaine’s central Saloon (formerly the entrance hall). Still dominated by ten huge canvas panels by the Italian artist who was in pole position to decorate the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral until politics intervened, ‘the saloon at Narford is the sublime monument to the genius of Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini‘.9


see: Vitruvius britannicus

Sir Andrew surrounded the Hall with highly formal gardens of enclosed spaces and geometric avenues terminated by classical eye-catchers. ‘Fountaine was uniquely mingling the latest Palladian architectural styles from Hanover with the kind of structural atmospheric content gleaned from Dutch gardens. For an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant succession, Narford was the ultimate politically correct garden.’7 A long canal extended north from the house, passing the church of St. Mary’s which still stands isolated NW of the Hall. Now redundant, ‘it is a woefully neglected place’…


see: John Salmon @ geograph

… one of the few remaining fixtures being Sir Andrew Fountaine’s memorial (left). “I am now building a Portico, and making a large plantation of oaks, as if I was to live 50 years longer,” he wrote in 1750, overestimating his longevity by some 47 years.8 The portico, a late indulgence, would not endure but much remains from a secondNHback significant phase of development at Narford after Fountaine’s retreat from the capital in 1733.

New bays were introduced north and west while, more significantly and seemingly also to his own design, a major new suite of rooms would now extend the house in the east.


see: Fairfax & Favor


see: Fairfax & Favor

‘The c.1735 work includes a four-bay block, now the Music Room, with a handsome Kentian fireplace [while] beyond, a typical singerie ceiling of exotic animals by Andien de Clermont crowns the Queen Anne Room.’2

Perhaps inspired by his time at the Ufizzi, Fountaine created an octagonal closet, top-lit and fronted by a glass door, specifically to display choice items from his then incomparable collection of maiolica and Limoges enamel ware. (Coins and medals were another enduring antiquarian obsession, numismatic expertise which doubtless contributed to his appointment as Warden of the Royal Mint in 1727. In contrast to his proactive predecessor in this role, Sir Isaac Newton, Fountaine evidently regarded the position as something of a sinecure, his years in office characterised by ‘indolence and inaccessibility’.10)

The Fountaine Family ?1776 by John Singleton Copley 1738-1815

see: Arts Council

Despite his noted appeal to the opposite sex, Sir Andrew would never marry and following his death in 1753 Narford descended through his niece Elizabeth and her husband William Price to their son, Brigg Price Fountaine. Though he would be squire for over half-a-century Brigg’s tenure saw little significant alteration to the Hall and its contents. But one new adornment would be a family portrait of c.1776, a work which has recently been acquired for the nation via the Cultural Gifts Scheme (whereby art works are accepted in lieu of tax). The ‘English School’ painting had been sold at auction for £36,000 in 1987 by Narford’s then owner, Andrew Fountaine (5), to pay for dry rot treatment at the Hall. Reacting to the assertion by its new owner months later that the picture was in fact a work by the leading American artist of the C18th, John Singleton Copley, and actually worth £2 million, Fountaine was philosophical: “I am very sceptical [but] if it is, I wish the chap all the luck in the world.”11


see: Fairfax & Favor

Brigg’s heir, Andrew (3), would enjoy Narford for just a decade, succeeded in 1835 by his son, Andrew (4), who soon initiated major changes, the estate coffers helpfully swollen by a four-day sale of surplus contents held in the Hall grounds in 1838. The rigid formality of the latter had long-since given way to open parkland. Surveying the scene in 1841 one visitor described ‘a place of great beauty though in miserable order at present’, a possible reference to the ongoing creation of the 60-acre lake behind the house.


see: Evelyn Simak

‘Before leaving this seat, it may be stated that we could discover no entrance to it at all worthy of the interior,’ the same author remarked, ‘the gateway [being] similar to that of a farmyard.’ Surprisingly, perhaps, the expansive plans of Andrew Fountaine (1801-74) would not remedy that situation as the house itself now underwent a programme of major aggrandisement.

In the 1850s, overseen by Robert Ketton of Norwich, the south front gained a dominating domed entrance tower ‘in the angle between the main house and the library wing of c.1718’2 while the single-storey range of 1735 was overwhelmed by ‘High Victorian grandeur’.12 The east face of this burly new block featured a canted bay book-ended by stout pavilions. Unlike so many cumbrous country house appendages of the period, all of the C19 work at Narford remains.


see: Historic England

Andrew Fountaine may have been impelled to enlarge his house having also inherited his esteemed ancestor’s weakness for C16 Continental china. ‘A wealthy man who combined fastidious taste with great courage as a buyer, who never scrupled to give immense prices for exceptional items,’ Fountaine was the last of Narford’s great collectors. His immediate heirs, daughter Mary and her husband (and first cousin), Algernon Fountaine, ‘preferred their equivalent in money’13


see: V&A

… kicking off a sequence of major dispersals with a ‘spectacle almost without rival’ in June 1884. Many of the 400+ pieces of “useless crockery” in the four-day Christie’s sale were acquired for the nation, displayed today at the British Museum and the V&A. A month later dozens of paintings and over 800 prints would be knocked down. One decade on, Rubens’ ‘Return of the Prodigal Son‘ was among more Old Masters sold, followed in 1902 by another four-day sale of almost one thousand folios and manuscripts from Narford’s library.

(Alas, a widowed Mary Fountaine would later be forced to sue the senior trustee of the Narford estate, Lord Amherst, when it was discovered that a large slice of the proceeds from these sales had been deposited with, and promptly embezzled by, his trusted solicitor.)

Mary Fountaine died two weeks before the 1918 wedding of her son, Charles, a career naval officer whose re-emergence from retirement to oversee North Atlantic convoys in WWII hastened his own demise in 1946. There followed an eccentric half-century at Narford dominated by the forceful but mutually antagonistic personalities of his widow and their son and heir.

“There is an iceberg between mother and me, there has always been a rift between us,” Andrew Fountaine (5) revealed to the Daily Mail in 1961. The newspaper had ventured to Narford to witness ‘the first international rally of the British National Party’, of which Fountaine was then president. The squire and his assembled acolytes were on manoeuvres in readiness to repel what they saw as the looming threat posed by non-white immigration into Britain. “Mother thinks it is outrageous. She owns the Hall but I own the grounds around it, so there is nothing she can do.”14


see: MACE

Exiled from the Conservative Party prior to the 1950 general election (the candidate for Chorley’s unapologetically racist views proving strong meat), Fountaine, as an independent, fell just 361 votes short of becoming the second of his line to be returned to Westminster. He would remain a prime mover in the BNP/National Front cause throughout the 1960s and ’70s – ‘the movement’s moneybags to a large degree’15 – losing more elections along the way. But in the 1980s ‘Fountaine largely abandoned his efforts to save the British race and concentrated on planting trees on his [5,000-acre] estate’.16

Meanwhile, his mother’s reign as the eccentric chatelaine of ‘the most inaccessible house in England’ having ended in 1968, more of Narford’s contents would gain new visibility via a steady trickle of further sales under Andrew Fountaine. Some key items have at least remained in the same county, Norwich Castle Museum acquiring Roubiliac’s ‘highly important’ terracotta bust of Sir Andrew (c.1747) in 1992, and the Grand Tour group portrait featured above.8


see: Fairfax & Favor

Pignatta, Giulio, 1684-1751; Sir Andrew Fountaine and Friends in the Tribune

see: Art UK

Sartorial scrutiny of that painting (left) reveals Sir Andrew Fountaine’s apparent fondness for distinctive footwear, the detail of his shoes being notably superior to that of his associates. While he would find much that has changed here since his time the renowned C18th aesthete might perhaps approve of the coveted creations peddled today by the Fountaines’ 21st-century generation from the converted stable block on the Narford Hall estate…


1. Einberg, E. William Hogarth: A complete catalogue of the paintings, 2016.
2. Parissien,S., Harris, J., Colvin, H. Narford Hall, Norfolk, Georgian Group Journal, 1987.
3. Kenworthy-Browne, J. et al. Burke’s & Savills Guide to Country Houses: East Anglia, 1981.
4. Hiskey, C. Holkham: The social, architectural and landscape history of a great house, 2016.
5. Macnair, M. (Mitchell, C., Mitchell, P., Eds.) Landmark cases in equity, 2012.
6. Colvin, H. A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, 3rd Edition, 1997.
7. Richardson, T. The Arcadian friends: Inventing the English landscape garden, 2007.
8. Moore, A. Norfolk and the grand tour, 1985.
9. Knox, G. Antonio Pellegrini, 1995.
10. Challis, C.E. (Ed.) A new history of the Royal Mint, 1992.
11. The Times 1 Sept 1987.
12. Pevsner, N., Wilson, B. Buildings of England: Norfolk 2: North West and South, 1999.
13. The Times 12 June 1884.
14. Daily Mail 22 May 1961.
15. The Times 22 Sept 1997.
16. Daily Telegraph 25 Sept 1997.
See also:
Harris, J. The Prideaux collection of topographical drawings, Architectural History, Vol.7, 1964.
Ford, B. Sir Andrew Fountaine: virtuoso, Apollo, pp.352-8, 1985.



Oxford academic, clergyman and man of letters Henry Kett was clearly not one of life’s fence-sitters:

This house is a disgrace to the noble scenery around it. Nature has done much for this charming place, but the builder caught no enthusiasm from the scene; for never was there an edifice reared in a more contemptible style.’1


see: Conishead Priory

In August 1798 The Reverend Kett had undertaken ‘A tour of the Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland’, his observations and reflections being subsequently published ten years on. The residence which had so offended Kett’s sensibilities was Conishead Priory, ‘the seat of Mr. Bradyll, of white rough cast in front, with gothic battlements, and an arcade bordered with yellow stucco’.1

Being at that time a rather muddled mid-C18 renovation, had the author lived to encounter the full-on gothick fantasy which Conishead Priory would become just three decades later he may quite possibly have expired from apoplexy on the spot.


see: bonjourbobs / Instagram

’There is no house in England like Conishead,’ suggested Simon Jenkins in his personal selection of England’s Thousand Best Houses and ‘the extravagant gothic mansion, now a Buddhist retreat,’ is duly a grade II* listed building in recognition of its unique character. Conishead stands just east of Ulverston on the Furness peninsula, at the head of the Morecambe Bay estuary. Travelling some four miles north to the foot of the tributary river Crake valley, Henry Kett found a vista altogether more to his liking.

’Near Penny Bridge stands the house of [Mr. Machell], plain, commodious, and elegant, built of white stone, and roofed with sea-green slate. This agrees with the character of the scenery, and is exactly what Mr. Bradyll’s ought to have been.’


see: Croquet in the North West

While the adjectives he deployed would still appear apposite, the face of Penny Bridge Hall today, just as at Conishead, is apparently not that which presented itself before Henry Kett. And he had at least noticed a house which has passed only by inheritance and marriage (never sold) but whose very plainness has rendered it largely inconspicuous in the architectural annals.


That Penny Bridge Hall should have been overlooked in Nikolaus Pevsner’s original Buildings of England series is not particularly unusual; omissions were inevitable given the logistics (and subjectivity) of his heroic shoestring odyssey completed over three decades from 1945. However, anyone searching the ‘comprehensive’ 800-page revised Cumbria edition of 2010 for any reference to this enduring family seat will also be disappointed.

IMG_3136[1]The entry for buildings of note within the parish of Egton-cum-Newland does make brief mention of two houses, including Summer Hill (‘a minor Late Georgian villa’) and this ‘handsome residence’ was also amongst those charmingly illustrated in a two-volume survey (r) of ‘The History and Antiquities of Furness’, published in 1880. Wherein, once again, Penny Bridge Hall is nowhere to be found.2

Summer Hill is a grade II listed building, the national register of structures of architectural or historic interest having been established in the early post-war years just as Pevsner was likewise sallying forth notebook in hand. And, as with his Guides, the register would later be subject to wholesale revision: ‘The resurvey of the 1980s largely made good the defects of the original listing process in the 1950s which had been erratic and incomplete.’3 Throughout this whole process the Hall at Penny Bridge was once more deemed to be unworthy of remark…


c.1906 (see source)

… unlike the short late-C16 river crossing nearby, Grade II, widened two centuries later and from which both house and hamlet derive their name. ‘Some time after 1587, a bridge was built at the ford over the Crake by James Penny who had moved [with his father, Richard] to Crakeford in 1572. The bridge would be a very real help to travellers using the packhorse route between Ulverston and Kendal.’4


see: Google Maps

And, incongruous as it may seem today, the strategic significance of this structure – ‘the most southerly bridge over the Crake prior to 1820’5 – would play its part in turning this scenic spot at the foothills of the Lake District into a hive of heavy industry some 150 years later.

‘When the Crown monopolies [in mineral rights] ceased in 1650, the people who lived by the estuaries of the rivers Crake and Leven were well placed to take advantage. They had a plentiful supply of water, wood (for charcoal) and iron ore for smelting. They had a packhorse route for all northbound traffic and facilities to load and unload ships in these tidal estuaries which gave ready access to markets beyond Furness.’4

Four generations on from his bridge-building ancestor, William Penny (1708-1788) sought to leverage his particular advantage. Hitherto principally a supplier of wood from his estate to the disparate local iron masters, in 1748, spurred by a belief that the latter had been actively conspiring to depress the price of charcoal, Penny led a consortium of timber suppliers who committed exclusively to supply a new blast furnace to be built on his land.



’The Penny Bridge furnace [and a shipbuilding quay just south of the bridge] only had a short life – it worked at some profit but came to a standstill in 1800’4 – yet the initiative would have a lasting effect upon the destiny of the Penny family estate. For over on the river Leven, four miles to the east, James Machell, by 1748 sole owner of the Backbarrow ironworks (right) established by his grandfather, saw the advantage of amalgamation with the Crake valley upstart, successfully negotiating a merger of the two enterprises.

In 1767 came another union, the marriage of James Machell’s eldest son, John, and Isabel, the youngest daughter of William Penny.


see: Visit Cumbria

Penny’s only son had died in infancy leaving Isabel and her two sisters. In time John Machell bought out the interest of his wife’s co-heirs and eventually succeeded his father-in-law as the squire of Penny Bridge Hall. Prior to their relocation the family had lived at Hollow Oak, the Machell residence at nearby Haverthwaite, on the river Leven, which had been enlarged to accommodate their six children (and today serves as a nursing home).

The family would all be interred at St. Mary’s, the church (↑) endowed by William Penny and completed by his son-in-law. But precisely who was responsible for the development of Penny Bridge Hall itself as it stands today remains unclear.


see: angler @ uglyhedgehog

‘A dignified early-C19 Classical house in a pretty park,’ notes one significant regional survey, ‘the main five-bay front has a Victorian iron and glass verandah along the ground floor.’6 John Machell died in 1820, his heir, James Penny Machell, in 1854.


see: Google Maps


see: Google Maps

Some indication of the character of the earlier stone house is evident at its western extremity (left), the opposite end merging into the first of two later ranges, which also features a full-height bay facing north (visible from across the river).

‘The grounds, dappled and shining with rhododendron blossom in early summer, give on to pleasant pasture fields, and look across to steeply sloping deciduous woodland beyond the Crake.’7


James Penny Machell’s son, John – who ‘lived a very retired life and beyond the immediate vicinity of his residence was personally little known’8 – passed the Penny Bridge/Hollow Oak estate to his only daughter in 1884. ‘An extensive and most considerate landowner,’9 Justina Madeline Machell died unmarried in 1900 aged 61 leaving all to kinsman Major Edward Machell of nearby Newby Bridge (descended from a younger son of her 3x great-grandfather). In memory of his benefactor, and his eldest son who had perished in the Boer War, Maj. Machell commissioned the carved oak reredos and altar in St. Mary’s Church (below).


see: Carlisle Diocese

His younger son, Ulf, not being of age at the time of Edward’s death in 1920, Penny Bridge Hall became available to let for a short time: ‘Furnished, charming old family residence standing in seven acres of fine timbered gardens, with about 2,500 acres of good, mixed shooting. Accommodation comprises entrance hall, three large reception rooms, ten principal bedrooms, six servant bedrooms. Vinery, conservatory, etc.’10


see: Airbnb

The latter details can be seen today associated with the promotion of a self-contained apartment at Penny Bridge Hall as an agreeable base for a break in the Lake District. “The flat is part of a rather grand old house set in large, well kept grounds,” says one of many satisfied customers of the present owners (to whom the estate was bequeathed by Lorna, widow of Penny Bridge’s most enduring squire Ulf Machell, in 1998).


see: Archie Workman

Adapting a property for such purposes will of course be potentially less involved where the ‘grand old house’ is not a listed building. National Parks designation brings with it an additional layer of planning bureaucracy but here too Penny Bridge Hall – standing sentinel-like above the Crake as it nears the end of its course from Coniston Water – is favoured.

For close scrutiny of the map reveals that the demarcation of the southern boundary of the Lake District National Park actually lies twenty paces away, on the opposite side of old Penny Bridge…

[Estate archives 1200-1905]

1. Mavor, W. The British tourist’s pocket companion, Vol.5, 1809.
2. Richardson, J. The history and antiquities of Furness, 1880.
3. Sayer, M. The disintegration of a heritage: Country houses and their collections 1979-1992, 1993.
4. Rigg, AN. The industrial heritage of the parish of Egton-with-Newland, 1966.
5. Holme, B. The ramblings of a longshore loafer, 2012.
6. Robinson, JM. A guide to the country houses of the North-West, 1991.
7. Dawson, J. Valley of prospects, Country Life, 20 Nov 1980.
8. West Cumberland Times, 25 Oct 1884.
9. Preston Herald, 22 May 1886.
10. Country Life, 18 Mar 1922.
See also:
:: Bowden, M., Ed., Furness iron, English Heritage, 2000.
:: “Din’d with Mr. Penny and eat six eggs” – The Diary of Edward Jackson, Vicar of Colton, for the year 1775.


Given its once-vaunted reputation as the newspaper of record, it’s surprising to consider just how many landmark moments in history never in fact appeared on the front page of The Times. Stunning victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo, the sinking of the Titantic, the outbreak of World War One, all relegated to the inside pages alongside the Court Circular and the racing results as, for a century and a half until the summer of 1966, page one of the august organ was given over to content created by its readers in the form of classified notices. For a relatively modest outlay the column inches beneath that famous masthead were yours.


In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the 1st April, 1549, when John Dyott of Stychbroke, 1519-1580, Thrice Bailiff of Lichfield, made the manor of Freeford his dwelling.’

A discreet gesture quietly satisfying the pride of Richard Dyott (d.1965), squire of Freeford for over sixty years and the ninth of that name to preside over this place with its never sold, never opened house just to the south of Lichfield. And just as The Times gave over it primary space to parochial concerns, similarly idiosyncratic editorial judgments are evident in the prodigious journal of Dyott’s forebear, Gen. William Dyott (d.1847), which, despite his decades of military service, neglected reference to such events as Nelson’s ultimate victory, and the charge of the Light Brigade. One episode the General could not overlook, however, was the dramatic demise of his own marriage – and neither, alas, would the newspaper of record.


see: Clive Reeves @ YouTube

When he died aged 86 in 1847, William Dyott’s coffin was processed from Freeford at night time through the thronged streets of Lichfield to the Dyott crypt at St. Mary’s Church. This family tradition of nocturnal burials has since ceased but a local cavalcade in the opposite direction continues to this day. The Sheriff’s Ride, which includes a pit stop on the Freeford estate (right), originated with Queen Mary’s Lichfield City Charter four-and-a-half centuries ago and has been held without interruption ever since. Much like Freeford Manor itself.

‘Henry Ludlow made no recorded contribution to the work of the 1st Parliament of King James I other than to interrupt a messenger from the Lords by breaking wind loudly in 1607.’ This flatulent interjection into the affairs of state would be quickly celebrated in ‘one of the most popular comic political poems of the early Stuart era’, a work in which fellow MP Anthony Dyott, son of the FFfartUSE2aforementioned John of Stychbroke, had the dubious honour of inclusion. The first of four Dyotts who would represent Lichfield at Westminster, by 1616 Anthony had consolidated his family’s ownership of the manor of Freeford and also overseen significant expansion east into neighbouring Whittington [map].


British Museum

Despite being combatants on the losing side it could be argued that the Dyotts had a good Civil War. Anthony’s deaf mute grandson, John ‘Dumb’ Dyott, is believed to have taken out ‘fanatical’ Cromwellian general Lord Brooke with a legendary sniper shot from the tower of Lichfield Cathedral. Yet the heir to Freeford, John’s elder brother, Richard (the first, right), would ultimately prove able to salvage his birthright…

… which would pass in 1719 to his great-grandson Richard (4) who, in the first decade of his half-century tenure, began building the core of the present house. ‘Although the structure has gone through seven stages of building, Freeford still retains its essentially Georgian character.’1


see: Victoria & Albert Museum

The varying correctness of the west front’s tripartite roofline gives an indication of the evolution of Freeford Manor (long-known as Freeford Hall). The three-bay centre section (pre-porch), accented by its tentative pediment and lunette window, represents the Dyotts’ original modestly-proportioned new house.


see: BSL Zone


see: BSL Zone

‘A drawing room (later the library) was added on the south in the mid-C18, and by the late-C18 another large room had been added on the east’ while a two-storey service wing now extended north. ‘The house was approached on the north through a courtyard, whose entrance was flanked by a pair of square buildings.’ ()2


see: Britain From Above

Richard Dyott’s daughter would marry into the neighbouring Astley family of Whittington Old Hall, a tie which would be later reinforced by the marriage of his grandson, Richard (6), to the latter’s first cousin, heiress Mary Astley, in 1783. This union had proved childless at the time of Richard’s sudden death at 58 in 1813, a year which would turn out to be something of an annus horribilis for his brother and heir, William (at this point resident at Whittington).

FFold1“I met with difficulty in settling with Mrs. Dyott,” William recorded in the diary he would maintain for almost the entirety of his long adult life. “I felt a little hurt that the family house [as pictured, 1797] was left to her for life. I should have been happy to have passed the remainder of my life at Freeford.”3

William would have to wait another thirteen years to get his wish. Somewhat more pressingly he was now also meeting with difficulty in respect of another Mrs. Dyott – his own wife, Eleanor.


“Having been at home leading an idle life for the space of three years,” in early 1781 William, the 19-year-old younger son of Richard Dyott (5), would set out for London seeking an army commission. So began a peripatetic military career which was to span almost half a century, the first years of which were mostly taken up with extended tours of duty in Ireland…and getting very, very drunk. ‘There are frequent references to parties, dances, dinners and shooting expeditions, his duties nothing more than attending reviews or the flogging of deserters.’3

ffWmDThere would also be diversions aplenty during a six-year posting to North America, notably a roisterous month in Halifax, Nova Scotia when young Lt. Dyott became the boon companion of fellow officer-about-town, Prince William (later King William IV). “The Prince would go into any house where he saw a pretty girl, and was perfectly acquainted with every house of a certain description.” This royal bond resulted in Dyott being appointed a personal aide-de-camp to the monarch in 1801, the year in which a posting to Egypt stymied William’s romantic interest in Maria Gresley of Drakelow Hall, 15 miles north-east of Freeford.

It was during another tour of duty in Ireland in 1805 that Dyott’s domestic destiny took a fateful turn. “I had frequent opportunities of seeing the Thompsons, and felt a very considerable increase of inclination for Miss Eleanor,” confessed William to himself in December 1805. A whirlwind romance quickly culminated in marriage the following month. “No person was present just her own family,” they being the Thompsons of Greenmount, overlooking Lough Neagh, and sizeable estates in Co. Antrim (significant interest in which would descend to the Dyotts some eighty years later).

FFeleanorAfter a quarter of a century of overseas service Lt.-Gen. Dyott was now back home in Staffordshire, busy quelling Midlands Luddites and producing a daughter and two sons in short order. In 1813 incipient health concerns took Eleanor to London and the novel therapy of Turkish vapour baths located in Downing Street (which was then “a nest of filth and thieves” in the eyes of her husband). Further deterioration in Eleanor’s condition led the family to take a house near the hot springs of Clifton in Bristol, William visiting as and when.

Relations became strained and in March 1814 Dyott received a bombshell letter from his wife “expressive of her wish to separate from me. I was amazed and hurt in the extreme”. Matters had not been helped by the close attendance of Eleanor’s favoured physician, one Charles Dunne, whose manner, William suspected, had encroached beyond the bedside and against whom he successfully prosecuted a civil action for ‘criminal conversation’ with his wife the following year.

Eleanor counter-claimed adultery and cruelty ahead of her husband’s divorce petition in Parliament “to secure my poor children’s interest in their unfortunate mother’s property”. (The latter was not inconsiderable and included a quarter share in over 1,200 acres of plantations and several hundred slaves on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands which would provide a significant source of income, not to mention pineapple trees for friends, until it was sold in 1905.)

fftimesdivUSEThe sordid details of Dyott vs. Dyott as revealed over several days of proceedings in the House of Lords filled column inches in The Times (r) in the summer of 1816.

Despite an admission to his brother-in-law that he himself had taken ‘improper liberties’ with a young maid-servant, William got his divorce, and he and their children were never to see Eleanor again. She did not disappear entirely, however. In 1821 the former Mrs. Dyott had printed at her own expense a brief ‘memoir‘ claiming to expose the ‘odious attempts to ruin her character’, and to deprive her of her property. ‘I prefer freedom in an humble cottage,’ she insisted, ‘rather than be the victim of tyranny under the appearance of splendid magnificence.’


see: Historic England

Grade II* Hanch Hall, three miles NW of Lichfield, to where newly-divorced tenant William and his children relocated in 1817, initially belied the appearance of splendid magnificence, requiring “much exertion to make [it] comfortable, a dirty farmer having occupied it for the last two years”. But with the death of his sister-in-law in 1826 the family seat at Freeford Hall was at last his, and local architect Joseph Potter was soon engaged to make alterations.


source: The Field1

‘The old diehard put on a couple of bedrooms above the drawing room in 1828 and his son, Lt-Col. ‘Dick’ Dyott MP, added the dining room and service wing in 1849.’1 The latter would also introduce the two-storey, part-rusticated porch before he died childless in 1891, at which point Freeford passed in the female line to his first cousin Richard Burnaby on condition he adopted the family name. The subsequent tenure of this Richard Dyott’s grandson, Richard (9), was the longest of any at Freeford and included a major upgrade of the domestic offices, which ‘were hopelessly out-of-date from every point of view’ (work which still preserved Freeford’s distinctive rectangular courtyard plan).4



see: Britain From Above

The process of modernisation was not something which had ever sat easily with Freeford’s diarist Gen. William Dyott. A Tory squire of the old school, Dyott had been trenchantly opposed to most of the progressive reform initiatives of his day, including slave emancipation, workers’ rights and the ‘education of the lower classes [which] I am satisfied has in no wise tended to benefit society’. And these reactionary instincts engendered an initially hostile view of the advent of the railway, which Dyott feared would have negative implications for landowners and “render highways, horses and canals useless”. But he gradually became a convert and regular passenger, having conceded that “if it proved to be of general utility to the country, individual interest must, as it ever has, succumb to the welfare of the state”.


see: BSL Zone

This is a perspective the Dyotts of Freeford, along with a great many others, have found some difficulty reconciling in recent times as they grapple with the reality of finding themselves on the preferred route for High Speed 2. This highly controverial billion-pound project for a faster cross-country rail service is set to slice through the 750-acre Freeford estate in the south and east, with ‘significant loss of land and/or severance’. Preparatory excavations got under way in Whittington this April ahead of the scheduled start of construction next year.


see: Parliament TV

Two hundred years ago William Dyott would have cause to lament “many wretched journeys to town” in the course of pursuing his divorce bill through Parliament. Perhaps empathising, in this respect at least, with their Regency ancestor as they now beat a similar path, January 2016 saw representations apropos HS2 made at Westminster by Freeford’s present generation as they looked to safeguard the inheritance of the next

[Freeford Manor listing][Archives]


see: Britain From Above

1. Montgomery-Massingberd, H. The Dyotts of proud tradition, The Field 20 Sept 1986.
2. A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, Victoria County History, 1990.
3. Dyott’s Diary, 1781-1845: A selection from the journal of William Dyott Vol.1 | Vol.2, 1907.
4. Lichfield Mercury, 2 July 1914.

It was always going to be something of a gamble: crossing the Mediterranean from Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera to the island of Corsica, a trip of some 115 miles, in an open 25-foot motorboat with no radio or compass. But to those who knew him back in the summer of 1963 such an impulsive, risky undertaking was entirely in keeping with the character of Lord Timothy Willoughby de Eresby, the 27-year-old heir to the earldom of Ancaster and its princely domains.


see: TorremolinosChic

Five years earlier Willoughby had been among a bevy of society figures arraigned in the dock at Marylebone Magistrates Court, a then illegal high stakes gaming session organised by would-be casino owner John Aspinall and his mother Lady Osborne at her Hyde Park home having been rumbled by police. ‘Show-stoppingly good-looking, totally unprincipled,’1 the debonair, complex Willoughby was part of a fast-living London scene whose cast ranged from aristocrats and beacons of bohemia (including ‘lunatic punters’ Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud2) to the criminal underworld of the Kray twins.

‘An incredibly rich wastrel who loved a bit of slumming,’2 the compelling character of pioneering parliamentarian Nancy Astor’s young grandson had already inspired ‘a landmark of art history’ and was now looking to make his own distinctive mark on London’s clubland. With its fur-lined walls and prominently positioned tank of piranhas, ‘Wips was a private members bar off Leicester Square [whose] opening night was a great success’, the architect engaged for the project by co-owner Tim Willoughby de Eresby recalled recently. ‘The following week I sent Timothy the bill for my design work, but he had already left for the south of France.’3


see: Getty Images

Whence he would set out, Corsica-bound, with an associate on that day in August 1963 – and was never to be seen again. Caught out by sudden violent stormy conditions, no body would ever be found despite the officially abandoned search being continued in a plane privately chartered by his elder sister, Jane. A decade earlier Lady Jane Willoughby had been one of six maids-of-honour at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (far left). And just as the relatively carefree family life of the royal princess had been foreshortened by the death of her father in 1952, so the world of Lady Jane Willoughby was now abruptly upended: ‘Suddenly she was the heir, and from that moment her life was defined by her family’s possessions.’4

And such possessions!


see: gailht / Instagram

In Scotland, the 60,000-acre Drummond Castle Estate 15 miles west of Perth, its elevated principal structures taking a back seat to what is indubitably ‘one of the major garden spectacles of Britain’ (r).5 And 340 miles south the small matter of Grimsthorpe Castle, ‘a stunning treasure house with beautiful contents, surrounded by 3,000 acres of ‘Capability’ Brown parkland’ representing roughly a quarter of the Lincolnshire estate.

Upon the death of her father the 3rd Earl of Ancaster in 1983 the family’s more ancient title now also passed to Lady Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, the Willoughby de Eresby barony being unusually available to female heirs in their own right. As the compound full surname of the 28th baroness indicates, this was far from being the first such occurrence (having happened five times previously since 1313). It was, however, a concept wholly alien to the Drummonds, earls of Perth, synonymous with Drummond Castle from the C15 until Jacobitical rupture in 1745. The passing of ‘their’ estate to a distant female cousin (later wife of the 22nd Lord Willoughby de Eresby) in 1800 would occasion ‘much bitterness on the part of other members of the House of Drummond’.


It was observed at the time of Tim Willoughby’s disappearance that the family’s vast estate would be financially unscathed as the earl of Ancaster had not yet handed everything over to his son (common practice to minimise death duties). Centuries earlier, James Drummond, the 5th Earl of Perth’s seemingly premature decision so to do (his son being but months old) would prove equally fortuitous, thereby thwarting its confiscation for his subsequent role in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion.


see: si_arm77 / Instagram

1715 was also the year in which Robert Bertie, 16th Baron Willoughby de Eresby became 1st Duke of Ancaster, marking his elevation with a Baroque remodelling of the north front of Grimsthorpe Castle (r) which had been this family’s seat for two centuries. In so doing Ancaster would procure ‘the last great masterpiece’ to be built by Sir John Vanburgh and which these days can be publicly enjoyed for six months of the year.6


see: JThomas

Conversely the mansion at Drummond has remained a private estate residence, primed at one point to be ‘the first major country house transformation in the career of Sir Charles Barry’.7 But Barry’s scheme of 1828, ‘which would have turned Drummond Castle into a Scottish Penrhyn‘, would never be executed by him.8 Instead, the house which took shape on the rocky plateau through the second half of the C19th has always had a tendency to underwhelm.


see: RIBApix

‘A plain structure, hardly the mansion one should expect such a family to have even for a brief autumnal residence’ – a verdict9 on Drummond just prior to its final subdued Baronial makeover, whose off-centre crow-stepped gable only just staves off ‘boredom’ in the view of one present-day authority.10 ‘Small but nice’ was Queen Victoria’s diary note of the bedroom provided by her hosts during a three-day visit with Prince Albert in 1842, an elaborate temporary banqueting tent being commissioned to compensate for the dining amenities in the house (r).


see source


see: Canmore

But, for four hours each year, the remains of the original Drummond Castle, the late-C15 tower house next door, are opened to visitors. This bastion would supersede Stobhall (25 miles NW) as the principal Drummond residence, later enhanced c.1630 with the addition of a gatehouse (left) by John Mylne, master-mason to Charles I. Mylne would also be responsible for the complex 12-ft obelisk sundial which, with its 76 faces, remains pivotal to the spectacular 12-acre terrace garden. ‘Old Drummond Castle was well battered by Cromwell’ after the Civil War but the good times gradually returned for the Drummonds following the Restoration, reaching a zenith during the ill-fated reign of James II (1685-8).11


see: Countrysportscotland

Made Chancellor and Secretary of State respectively, James Drummond, 4th earl of Perth, and his brother John (created Earl of Melfort) were ‘soon effectively in charge of governance within Scotland’. Perth and his son would develop a new residence on the plateau, ‘the nucleus of the present house’, including a Catholic chapel room ‘of the highest quality of design’ by James Smith. Alas, this feature would be lost along with the cultured Perth’s sizeable art collection when Parliamentary forces of the anti-Catholic interim government occupied the Castle in the wake of King James’ flight into French exile.12

After several years under arrest (during which he would be created ‘Duke of Perth’ by the emasculated monarch), Drummond was released on condition he too left for France, where he died. His son meanwhile had been able to return to salvage the family estate which he presciently consigned to his infant son two years before active involvement in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. But this James, titular 3rd duke, would be unable to pull off the same trick as his father before taking up cudgels in the uprising of ’45, dying unmarried aboard a frigate bound for France following the rout at Culloden. After a century of living dangerously the Drummonds’ property was now finally attainted, their titles in abeyance.



see: Savills

Several weeks ago the sale was completed of a 17-acre Perthshire plot, formerly the site of the mansion and “lost garden” of Dunira House (r). Lying some nine miles north-west of Drummond Castle. Dunira was among the possessions of the earls of Perth and its amenities would subsequently be enjoyed by Henry Dundas (1742-1811) on lease from the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates.

By 1784 Dundas was a considerable power in the land, number two to Prime Minister William Pitt and ‘virtually minister for Scotland’. Curiously, that year would see both the passing of the Disannexing Act and Dundas obtaining Dunira: ‘[His] acquisition of this delightful place seems to have been bound up with the Drummond family’s indebtedness to him, and with the restoration of forfeited estates which he was instrumental in effecting.’13

In determining the destiny of the Drummond estate the Court of Session upheld the claim of one Capt. James Drummond (formerly Lundin), a great-grandson of the 1st Earl of Melfort via his first marriage. The swiftness of this arbitration had rather blindsided Melfort’s descendants exiled in France. Through their ‘seclusion and utter ignorance .. a person representing himself to be the Honourable James Drummond, supported by a very powerful patron, had no person capable to rebut his pretensions’, they were to argue, in vain. (Other claims persist to this day.)


see source

Almost immediately, this James Drummond ’employed John Steven to remodel the L-shaped mansion house’, the double-pile main range receiving a bow extension overlooking the gardens.10 Three years before his death in 1800 Drummond was ennobled as the first Baron Perth – the first and the last since he left only a daughter, Clementina, to whom all now passed and who, seven years on, would marry the 22nd Baron Willoughby de Eresby.

This last development reinvigorated the French exiles who now argued that historically the Drummond inheritance was restricted to heirs male. ‘In 1807 the Duc de Melfort was forced out of Scotland, put on board a packet sailing for Lisbon by police, very powerful interest having been employed to get him out of the way,’ stated his nephew George Drummond (who would finally be granted the abeyant earldom of Perth in 1853 but fail in his own claim on the Drummond estates fifteen years later).


see: Canmore

Lord and Lady Willoughby reinstated the Drummond Castle garden in the famous form seen today, landscape architect and long-time estate factor Lewis Kennedy taking forward designs (incorporating the Scottish saltire and the family colours) developed in conjunction with architect Charles Barry.


see: Cubo et excubo

Their son Alberic died unmarried in 1870 being succeeded by his sister, Lady Clementina Heathcote (later Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby by Royal Licence 1872) as 24th baroness in her own right. Ten years before her death in 1888 G T Ewing was enlisted ‘to remodel the mansion to something of the appearance of a C17 laird’s house’.10 Gilbert, her son and heir, was created 1st Earl of Ancaster, a title which would effectively disappear along with his great-grandson Timothy in 1963.


Since her succession to the ancient barony of Willoughby de Eresby in 1983 Lady Jane Willoughby has featured regularly in the Sunday Times Rich List as among the wealthiest women in the land. Technically, however, since 1978 the entire estate has been in the ownership of a charitable trust established by the 3rd Earl of Ancaster and his daughter for ‘the preseveration and enhancement, for the public benefit, of Grimsthorpe Castle and Drummond Castle’. The baroness is one of eight present trustees.

‘In general, one of two preconditions needs to exist for a family to set up a substantial charitable fund to maintain and open a house. One is that the family’s assets are large enough to endow the house adequately without significantly reducing the family’s economic position.’14


see source

The Rich List of 2007 attributed a figure of £49m to Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. In that same year a single painting by British artist Francis Bacon came onto the market for the first time, realising $52.6m at Sotheby’s, New York. Study from Innocent X had been created in 1962, the year in which another work, Two Figures, 1953 – ‘one of Bacon’s most remarked upon, seldom seen paintings’15 – was shown at the Tate, its only public display in Britain to date. Also known as ‘The Buggers’, this picture (r) hung for many years in the home of Bacon’s great friend and rival, the late Lucian Freud, but has since returned to hang in the bedroom of its actual owner, Lady Jane Willoughby.


A Design: The Garden at Drummond from Higher Ground  © June Andrews

‘For more than half a century Jane had been Freud’s most loyal patron, supporter, friend, lover, muse and soulmate. Lucian used to stay with her at her baronial home in Perthshire and supported her plans to build up an astonishing collection of works by modern British artists: Bacon, Auerbach, Michael Andrews (left), and the greatest collection of Freud’s own work [in private hands]. There are plans to use part of her house as an extraordinary museum for the works of Freud and his circle.’4

‘The alternative precondition for a family to set up a charitable fund to maintain a house is the impending extinction of the family, or its direct line.’14


see: Hannah Rothschild

Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, now 82, has never married or had children. (While Lucian Freud would father fourteen acknowledged children by six different women, Lady Jane (r) remained unwavering in her support.) Among the current board members of the Grimsthorpe and Drummond Castle Trust is the baroness’s first cousin once removed, one of several co-heirs. And, of course, who ultimately succeeds to the 700-year-old barony is of more than purely parochial interest.

For Lady Jane represents one of three families who share the oldest hereditary office in England, that of Lord Great Chamberlain. Whilst responsible for certain ceremonial duties at coronations the office holder is most commonly to be seen at the annual State Opening of Parliament, being the monarch’s representative in the Palace of Westminster. IMG_0110By virtue of an agreed rotation the Marquesses of Cholmondeley have served in this capacity throughout the time of Queen Elizabeth II. Taking over every fourth reign, all things being equal, the Lords Willoughby de Eresby will next be called upon at the coronation of King George VII…

[Drummond Castle Gardens][Listing][Full genealogy]

1. Luard, E. My life as a wife: life, liquor and what to do about other women, 2013.
2. Scala, M. Diary of a teddy boy, 2000.
3. Rykwert, J. Nightclubbing, AA files 74, 2017.
4. Grieg, G. Breakfast with Lucian: a portrait of the artist, 2013.
5. Hellyer, AGL. A great Scottish formal garden, Country Life, 10 Aug 1972.
6. Musson, J. Grimsthorpe Castle, Country Life, 17 Apr 2008.
7. Blissett, D. Sir Charles Barry: A reassessment of his travels & early career [thesis], 1983.
8. Lindsay, M. Castles of Scotland, 1986.
9. Dundee Courier, 12 July 1878.
10. Gifford, J. Buildings of Scotland: Perth and Kinross, 2007.
11. Country Life, 26 July 1902.
12. MacKechnie, D. The Earl of Perth’s chapel of 1688 at Drummond Castle, 2014.
13. McNaughton, D. Upper Strathearn: From earliest times to today, 1991.
14. Sayer, M. The disinitegration of a heritage, 1993.
15. Harrison, M. Francis Bacon: catalogue raisonné, 2016.


Hoveton House, Norfolk

In February this year, one week ahead of a scheduled meeting of the planning committee of Cheshire West & Chester Council, David Cholmondeley, seventh Marquess of that ilk, wrote a letter to the council’s chief executive. It was to be the final push behind a project which he believes “will mark an important step for the future of the Cholmondeley Estate”.


see: Peter Craine

Extending across more than seven thousand acres in the soft underbelly of north-west England, ‘the seat of the Cholmondeleys has passed down in the direct male line since the 12th century’.1 While the C19th Gothick castle (right) remains a private residence the renowned gardens nurtured by the marquess’s late mother are opened seasonally and the grounds host regular events including the popular ‘Cholmondeley Power and Speed’.

“The long-term vision of the Estate aims to deliver a thriving environment of which we can all be proud,” wrote the marquess in the course of explaining that what this environment really needs now is .. Twiggles. Twiggles and, indeed, Boggles. The planning committee of Cheshire West Council having since been duly persuaded, the transformation of some unremarkable outlying acres of the Cholmondeley Castle estate into ‘the captivating and enchanting world’ of BeWILDerwood is seemingly imminent.

hovebewild3Swampy shuffled out of his house and made his way to the main platform in the Boggle village. This was the place where the Boggles had most of their feasts and Swampy could almost smell the aroma of sweetsludge pie and mudwort jelly..’

Now Boggles, nor indeed Twiggles, are not native to the north-west of England. They are set to be introduced from their only existing habitat, being several acres of marshy woodland in Norfolk, a county wherein also lies the other seat of the Marquess of Cholmondeley, palatial Houghton Hall, begun in 1721 for Sir Robert Walpole. Some forty years earlier and forty miles east an altogether more modest but today similarly Grade I listed Classical creation, Hoveton House, had been completed for one Thomas Blofeld (d.1708):

For many years justice of the peace and deputy lieutenant, once mayor and six times a representative in Parliament for the city of Norwich, in all which stations he signalized himself for his eminent zeal and unwearied diligence in promoting the interest, trade and welfare of his country, his knowledge in which was equalled by few, his integrity exceeded by none.’

Passed only by inheritance – mostly to people named Thomas – since its construction c.1680, Hoveton is today the private home of one Thomas Blofeld:

Tom was born at a very early age and mostly grew upwards after that. When he left school he embarked on a full-time career as a sausage thief. Unfortunately he was easily distracted and got caught quite often. He says he has stolen his last sausage now and is quite reformed, but all sausage thieves say that.’


see: Bewilderwood

Hoveton House has been described as ‘a naive, but a most lovable design’2, adjectives which might equally characterise the estate-saving wheeze developed by Tom Blofeld having been handed the reins at Hoveton a dozen years ago. With a somewhat incoherent ‘career’ hitherto (which included more than a little ‘swanning around doing nothing’3), hovebww1Blofeld (right) hit on the notion of creating a fantasy woodland kingdom populated by an imaginary community elaborated in several self-published children’s books. A kind of anti-amusement park was born, powered not by electricity and adrenalin but rather by the energy and imagination of its 2-12 year old target audience.

Eco-friendly and unashamedly old-fashioned in its appeal, BeWILDerwood was soon attracting more than 150,000 visitors annually and Blofeld and his small team had Mark II in the pipeline for National Trust/Cheshire Council-run Tatton Park until negotiations eventually hit the buffers. Enter fellow Old Etonian the Marquess of Cholmondeley as the ideal partner, being ‘a willing landowner who possesses the freehold of the whole site’.


This enterprising streak would doubtless be recognised by Thomas Blofeld, the builder of Hoveton House, whose fortune derived from the successful manufacture and marketing of woollen garments in partnership with his brother-in-law, Henry Negus. A Norfolk family for generations, the Blofelds had gradually inched south from coastal Cromer, steadily improving their yeoman status (via some opportune alliances) before Thomas’s acquisition of the manor of Hoveton St John in 1667.4


see: mikes_urban_garden

‘One of the most charming of Norfolk houses, in a beautiful and secluded setting,’5 Hoveton stands amidst the watery low-lying landscape of the Norfolk Broads, formed from the flooded peat pits of the early Middle Ages. The Blofeld property is naturally bounded on three sides by the looping river Bure which feeds Hoveton Great Broad and Hoveton Little Broad, private waters constituting a sizeable chunk of the estate’s 1,500-acre extent. In 1882 it was observed that the ‘Dutch-ness’ of the Broads was nowhere more so than at Hoveton Great Broad: ‘Homely, fat arable land right and left, and windmills all around the horizon.’6


see: Sam Klebanov

And this influence remains evident at Hoveton House itself, the north (present-day entrance) front featuring the Dutch gables of the smaller original house and contrasting markedly with the Classical symmetry which would envelope it. No architect has been ascribed for the late-C17 expansion of Hoveton which was rendered in tiny, one-inch orange-red local bricks, its principal south front articulated by stone pilasters and crowned with a steep pediment.

Above the original doorway (see below) ‘a fancy pediment with a lot of not very disciplined vegetable carving’2 also displays the arms of the Blofeld and Negus families both of which, despite Thomas and Elizabeth remaining childless, would continue to be represented in the next generation at Hoveton. For the estate was settled upon Thomas’s great-nephew, Thomas (2), who in time would marry Elizabeth’s great-niece, Sarah Negus.

‘Both externally and internally Hoveton House has been remarkably little altered through the ages.’5


see: Leslie Felperin


see: Ramon Wardale

But Thomas and Sarah would be responsible for moving the main door one bay along and enhancing the interiors with some ‘attractive mid-C18’ decorative mantels in the drawing room and dining room (r).7

The dining room perhaps still also contains portraits of this couple which hung there along with those of earlier generations in the time of the present owner’s grandparents (who would themselves expand Hoveton’s collection with canny purchases at country house sales): ‘We try to fit the ancestors in wherever we can as they did so much for Hoveton; not great works of art but amusing portraits of real people.’8


see: Bing Maps

Shortly before his death in 1766 Thomas enjoyed the “wonderful divine providence” of an unexpected inheritance from a distant cousin including, in addition to a sum of money, a goodly collection of decorative items many of which still remain, and which complimented Hoveton House’s early-C18 furnishings. (To his irritation, however, Thomas would subsequently have to contend with “Phillistines who come to spy out my good fortune”.)8

While his good fortune would not extend to having a son Hoveton remained squarely in the family, only daughter Sarah having married her first cousin, John Blofeld. Their own son and heir, Thomas (3), contemplated potentially radical upheaval soon after inheriting himself in 1805, calling upon Humphrey Repton to reimagine the lie of the land. ‘Repton visited three times in 1807.’9 To this point Hoveton House had fronted directly onto a highway running east-to-west. A realignment order would see the road promptly moved north while a ha-ha now transected pastures rolling away to the south.


source: The Field4

‘Dotted mainly with mature oaks, this diminutive landscape survives in good condition,’9 as indeed does Repton’s Italianate vision for Hoveton House itself which for one reason or another was never executed. ‘Repton was not put out and wrote an agreeable letter suggesting that Mrs. Blofeld should make little fans of [his] ‘before and after’ drawings,’ another suggestion mercifully rejected.8

Thomas Blofeld died ten years later, his tenure as brief yet as impactful as any Hoveton squire. It was also, thanks to the couple’s spending habits (Thomas being an ‘enthusiastic collector of Old Master and English drawings’) financially draining, however. It was an indebtedness his son and grandson (Thomases 4 & 5) could in turn do little to ameliorate, both being ‘impecunious’ vicars.8 The second Reverend Blofeld’s son, Thomas (6), having followed the well-trodden family path from Eton to Cambridge, went on to combine a lengthy legal career (including 29 years as Recorder of Ipswich) with a consuming drive to balance the books at Hoveton after inheriting in 1875.

But this effort would certainly not involve exploiting the waterways on the estate to cash in on the Victorian boom in recreational use of the Norfolk Broads. ‘I wish to bear testimony to the great and growing evil caused by [passenger] steamers,’ boomed Thomas Calthorpe Blofeld in a letter to the local press,10 noting the harm which he, as the owner of several miles of river bank, had plenty of opportunity to judge. It was around this time that navigable access to Hoveton’s Broads would be fenced off, a situation which obtains to this day much to the displeasure of some.


see: anouska_x

‘Hoveton Great Broad (r) is one of the largest yet most secret lakes in The Broads,’ states the website of the multi-agency project to restore this water (which has been leased to Natural England for 25 years) back to health. The awarding of several millions to this end by the National Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Union has proved controversial: ‘To use public money to repair years of neglect and still exclude boaters is a total disgrace.’ The Broads Authority admits that ‘there is no public access to the water or surrounding land [and that] this project does not provide any hope that this might improve in the future. The overriding driver is that of conservation benefit’.


see: British Museum

As, in its way, was the disperal of a significant portion of the art collection of Thomas (3) by John (2) soon after he inherited Hoveton in 1908 (one of two Canalettos, left, ending up in the British Museum). Also responsible for ‘turning’ the house round by developing the north courtyard entrance, John Blofeld would be fatally stricken…

… by anthrax in his mid-40s obliging his 17-year-old son Thomas (7) to abandon thoughts of a medical career and embark on a remarkable six-decade stint as the squire of Hoveton. Though financially deleterious inertia would set in latterly, this longevity at the helm would allow eldest son John to rise through the legal ranks, becoming a High Court judge.11 Meanwhile…


see/hear: BBC

… just last month a round of applause broke out around Lord’s Cricket Ground during England’s Third Test match against the West Indies as younger son Henry Blofeld finally drew stumps as the doyen of cricket commentary after 47 years. ‘There is no doubt that the family estate at Hoveton was an enchanting place in which to have been brought up .. heaven for a small boy,’ recalled ‘Blowers’ in a memoir.12

His nephew Thomas (8) having rather successfully tapped into and monetised this nostalgic childhood enchantment through the expanding world of BeWILDerwood, the outlook for heavenly Hoveton would seem to be set fair…


see: Cambridge FilmWorks

[Grade I listing][BeWILDerwood]

1. Robinson, JM. A guide to the country houses of the North-West, 1991.
2. Pevsner, N., Wilson, B. The buildings of England: Norfolk: Norwich and North East, 1997.
3. Delingpole, J. Variations on a theme park, Financial Times, 5 May 2008.
4. Montgomery-Massingberd, H. Hoveton’s ten times Thomas Blofeld, The Field, 20 Jul 1985.
5. Winkley, G. The country houses of Norfolk, 1986.
6. Bell’s Life, 2 Dec 1882.
7. Kenworthy-Browne, J. et al. Burke’s & Savills guide to country houses: East Anglia, 1981.
8. Blofeld, Grizel. An account of the Blofeld family of Hoveton House, 1978.
9. Dallas, P., et al. Norfolk gardens and designed landscapes, 2013.
10. Norfolk News, 12 May 1894.
11. Blofeld, Henry. A thirst for life, 2000.
12. Blofeld, Henry. Squeezing the orange, 2013.


Emerald turf beneath my tread,
Soft gray mist around my head;
Salt the breeze, the air how sweet,
Where the Esk and Eden meet!

– Millicent von Boeselager, Songs of Solway1

At the confluence of those two grand rivers lies the Solway Firth, a wild, dynamic expanse of estuary, mudflats and marsh, its detail restlessly redrawn by the tidal ebb and flow. Entering from the north, the Esk carries cartographic significance, its meandering channel emphasised by the dashes and crosses symbolizing the border between England and Scotland.


see: James Smith/Vimeo

The historic territorial skirmishes between these two nations is recalled on southerly Burgh Marsh where stands an isolated monument (r) to the Hammer of the Scots, King Edward I, marking the place of his expiry en route to another run-in with Robert the Bruce. ‘Burgh is only one of the great salt marshes of the Cumbrian Solway; the biggest and most important for wildlife is Rockcliffe Marsh’…

… a verdant swathe topped and tailed by the Esk and Eden. With vast transient populations of waders and over-wintering geese this marsh is a sanctuary of international import, its status derived in no small part from the fact Rockcliffe, ‘unlike Burgh, has always been kept a strictly private place by its owners, the Mounsey-Heyshams of Castletown House’.2


see: Castletown Estate

“Our USP is the inland saline lagoon. We have just had two pairs of avocet adults producing five chicks, which is a first for Cumbria,” revealed present owner Giles Mounsey-Heysham just last month…


see: Yorkshire Post

… in the course of accepting the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s Tye Trophy for 2017, an award commending conservation measures in farming across the north of England. This is but the latest recognition for Rockcliffe Marsh, ‘the single largest expanse of saltmarsh in the Solway Coast AONB‘ and land which constitutes a significant proportion of the 7,000-acre Castletown Estate.


see: Ann Lingard

The marsh has been formally ‘stinted’ – grazed by arrangement – since divisive Articles of Agreement signed in 1769 which excluded those living in the eastern half of Rockcliffe parish. Before neutral arbitration prevailed this perceived injustice looked set to be compounded by the enclosure process of 1805, the prime mover of which was Rockcliffe’s newest and biggest landowner, Robert Mounsey, of Mounsey & co., solicitors, of nearby Carlisle.

Now the saltmarshes of Solway are a by-product of evolving river flow – but what Mother Nature giveth she also taketh away. And no-one would be more sensitive to this locally than William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (d.1872), the owner of Burgh Marsh on the opposite bank of the Eden. In 1864, citing erosion protection, his Lordship began the construction of a brick jetty 100 yards in length. He swiftly faced court action by the Mounseys who claimed the jetty ‘would force the current to the other side of the river and wash away the plaintiff’s land’.3


see: Bing Maps

Years of legal proceedings ensued, Castletown’s case aided by the family firm and the Earl losing expensively at every turn. As the saga played out one irony was doubtless not lost on either party: For the rise of Mounseys from humble origins a century before to county prominence as lawyers and landowners had its roots in the benevolence of the Lowther estate.

Thirty miles south of Rockcliffe, on the bounds of vast Lowther Castle park, lies the village of Askham where Robert Mounsey’s grandfather (also Robert) was born in 1696. The following year Viscount Lonsdale endowed a grammar school on his estate where young Robert would later thrive, subsequently entering the church and serving as vicar of Ravenstonedale for several decades.

Rising from a junior position in the office of the Registrar of the Diocese of Carlisle, law proved to be the metier of Robert’s son, George, who would later establish Mounsey & co., subsequent generations developing the firm and its stranglehold on diocesan legal affairs. With his wife, Margaret, George Mounsey produced fourteen children several of whom would be placed in the care of wet nurses outside of town, third son Robert being sent a few miles north to the village of Rockcliffe.

The Mounsey family’s proliferation mirrored that of Carlisle itself at this time, the town experiencing a cotton-printing boom. By the turn of the 19th century Carlisle’s cadre of middle-class movers and shakers were ready to upgrade to the league of country gentlemen, the aspriation of Messrs Mounsey (law), Ferguson (mills) and Hodgson (banking) seemingly spurred on by the timely arrival in town of the new county surveyor for Cumberland.


see: Google Maps

On the recommendation of renowned engineer/architect Thomas Telford, Peter Nicholson arrived in 1808 from Glasgow where he had recently completed Carlton Place (r), ‘the most chaste and elegant of the buildings which grace the Clyde’. An accomplished craftsman and draftsman, Nicholson’s main driver was education, his peripatetic career being something of a one-man mission to instill…


see source


see: NPG

… ‘with as much perspicuity as possible’, the discipline of mathematics into the art and craft of architecture. Already the author of several manuals of innovative instruction, Nicholson would leave Carlisle for London after just two years in post to continue publishing and teaching, but not before he had essayed a clutch of Classical villas to the north of the town for his aspirant clientele.

All three houses – within three or four miles of one another, their construction overseen by Nicholson’s partner, architect William Reid – were variations on a theme: two-storey, five-bay principal blocks flanked by subordinate pedimented wings. Houghton House for William Hodgson (below, left) features a ‘delightful cast-iron veranda and a beautiful little octagonal library’4


see: Historic England


see: Historic England

… while at the Fergusons’ Harker Lodge nearby a broad fan-light crowns a recessed entrance, the pavilions here being explicitly remote.

But the largest and perhaps most successful composition of this trinity was achieved at Rockcliffe for Robert Mounsey on the land which he had acquired in 1802.


see: tauck.com

That Castletown House could be described back in 1989 as ‘a remarkable early-C19th survivor .. still lived in by its original family’ is surely testament to the toll of ancestral seats over the past one hundred years.5 For, by the standard of most of the houses hitherto considered here, Grade II* listed Castletown is positively a young ‘un, but it’s an original house built on a virgin site and mercifully little-altered.


see: PhotoCumbria/Instagram

Completed in 1811, ‘Castletown sits in a spectacular location’ overlooking the Eden (the attraction of which may have palled somewhat just the following year when the Mounseys’ second son, ten-year-old Robert, drowned whilst bathing in the river).


see: JFitzpatrick Travel

As at Houghton and Harker Lodge, the central section of the original entrance front of Castletown House stands proud of its (here two-storeyed and, in the west, bow-ended) wings. ‘The short links are canted back, which jars a little but allows the apsidal ends of the main rooms to be lit.’4


Country Life5

Two-column screens emphasise these apses in the dining room (below) and drawing room, the intervening hallway (featuring a decorative plasterwork ceiling) being similarly defined. An elegantly trim cantilevered staircase rises beyond.


Hugh Palmer/The Field (detail)10

‘Much of the furniture is of the same date as the house.’5 Externally, the portico comprises square pillars featuring locally novel incised decoration ‘characteristic of John Soane’s work at the Bank of England’ in the last years of the eighteenth century when Peter Nicholson was first in London.6


see: Historic England

Either side (with flanking louvred shutters) are elongated ground floor windows, all the better to maximise the carefully selected southerly vista. However, while they might afford fine views out they do, of course, allow others to readily see in.

In a Grecian or Italian edifice, it may be essential that the entrance occupy the centre of one of the fronts; in which case, I think it equally essential that the living rooms should not be on the same front. On the contrary, we frequently see the entrance on the south front, and the drawing room or library exposed to the gaze of the servants from the carriage, whilst the windows, which should have opened upon the embellishments of a terrace or pleasure ground, look upon a sweep of glaring gravel.’


see: Historic England

The opinions of painter William Sawrey Gilpin who in later years would apply his aesthetic sensibilities in the role of landscape consultant. He averred that two-thirds of the houses he had seen were ‘spoiled’ by such inattention and urged reorientation wherever practicable.


see: Britain From the Air

Though he died the year after Robert Mounsey, Gilpin is known to have worked at Castletown7 – the terrace above a dwarf wall is a typical motif – and may have sown the seed for the house being ‘turned round’ by Mounsey’s son 1851-2. Castletown was deepened to incorporate the inset Doric portico of the new north entrance (above).


see: Google Maps

The project was overseen by architect James Stewart whom George Gill Mounsey (d.1874) also employed in the building of new churches at Rockcliffe and on family land at Gilsland Spa (r) 22 miles east on the Cumbria / Northumberland border…

… where a large hotel enterprise would also be redeveloped. This burst of building activity followed the death of three-time Carlisle mayor Mounsey’s wife, Isabella Heysham, the daughter of the town’s leading medic, Dr. John Heysham, a pioneer in the treatment of the disease-ridden local poor.

The Mounseys’ second son, George, became Mounsey-Heysham upon inheriting the estate of his uncle, James Heysham, in 1871. By the time he also came into Castletown House ten years later (his elder brother Robert dying unmarried at 52) George was well-established practicing law in London and raising a family in Kensington. His only son, also George, a soldier and solicitor in the family firm, would also be unmarried at the time of his death in 1928. Castletown now passed to Richard, the son of his eldest sister (Agnes, wife of Capt. Richard Gubbins), who had been orphaned a decade earlier and until attaining his majority enjoyed the singular guardianship of his aunt, Sybil Mounsey-Heysham.

‘A unique and vivid character of whom people would say quite matter-of-factly that she ought to have been a man,’ Sybil already had experience in teenage mentoring having previously taken a young Olave Soames – later wife of Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, and the driving spirit of Girlguiding – under her wing. Olave ‘stayed at Castletown as often as she could’, coming to regard unconventional Sybil – ‘reputedly one of the three best duck shots in the country’ and an enthusiastic violinist – as ‘an example and an inspiration’.8


see: StatelyHomeNews

Richard Gubbins-Mounsey-Heysham left three children by his second wife, Margaret Barne, at his death in 1960. The eldest daughter would marry into the Howard/Lawson family of Corby Castle (r), another Peter Nicholson house on the banks of the river Eden, some 15 miles upstream of Castletown on the other side of Carlisle. Regarded as ‘his masterpiece’, Grade I Corby has had an ill-starred recent past.9 Its sale out of the family after 400 years in 1994 led to an acrimonious courtroom saga driven by Sir John Howard-Lawson’s son and ‘heir’; the multi-millionaire industrialist purchaser would perish in a helicopter crash ten years later.

In marked contrast to such drama, for most of the past half-century Castletown has known the constant stewardship of its seventh (and longest-serving) squire, a man of many hats, and long-married to Penelope Twiston-Davies, sister of leading National Hunt racehorse trainer, Nigel. And the suggestion of continuity would be there from the outset of Giles Mounsey-Heysham’s ownership: ‘On his twenty-first birthday, in the best feudal tradition, the tenants on the estate presented him with the lodge gates to Castletown House.’10


see: Google Maps

[Castletown Estate][Rockcliffe Marsh Nature Reserve]

1. nee Mounsey-Heysham, Millicent. A book of verses, 1914.
2. Ratcliffe, D. Lakeland, 2002.
3. Carlisle Journal 25 Oct 1864.
4. Hyde, M., Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Cumbria, 2010.
5. Worsley, G. Castletown House, Cumberland, Country Life 7 Sept 1989.
6. Taylor, A. The dukeries of Carlisle, Country Life 21 Aug 1989.
7. Piebenga, S. William Sawrey Gilpin: Picturesque improver, Garden History, Vol.22, No.2, 1994.
8. Jeal, T. Baden-Powell, 1989.
9. Robinson, JM. A guide to the country houses of the North-West, 1991.
10. Montgomery-Massingberd, H. Surveying the future at Castletown, The Field 12 Jan 1985.


Completely out of the blue one autumn day in 1872 Sir Charles Rouse-Boughton, 11th baronet, was informed that he had been bequeathed an eighteenth-century mansion, Henley Hall in Shropshire (below), together with its landed estate in the will of a recently deceased neighbour, Mr. John Knight. Being already squire of his own handsome ancestral pile – Downton Hall just to the north – Sir Charles’s surprise at this turn of events was as nothing compared to that of Knight’s three appalled adult sons who quickly set about mounting a legal challenge to have the will set aside.


see: Imsweddings

Relaxed and somewhat nonplussed about the whole business, Sir Charles duly submitted to the process which saw a jury in the Court of Probate successfully persuaded of the proposition that Knight, labelled ‘a capricious, morose recluse’, had edged from mere eccentricity into insanity. Testimony that he ‘seldom dressed till the middle of the day’ and was ‘fond of listening to German bands’ and cruelly pranking his servants was of perhaps less significance than a landmark judgement from a generation before in convincing the jury that Knight’s legacy was indeed perverse.

For Sir Charles, the court was reminded, ‘was the descendant of a person who in 1840, in consequence of a decision of the Court of Chancery, had come into the possession of a [separate] magnificent estate which had previously belonged to the Knight family and had ever since been in the possession of the Boughtons’. (The Boughton baronetcy, meanwhile, had descended, as we shall also see, from Sir Charles’s great-grandfather via a sensational – and retrospectively dubious – murder trial and execution.)

So the Knights duly retained Henley Hall (at least for a short time before selling). But, while the Rouse-Boughton baronetcy is now extinct, the Downton Hall estate – a Grade II* house sitting at the heart of ‘5,500 acres of breathtakingly beautiful Shropshire countryside’1 – remains with Sir Charles’s descendants having passed only by inheritance and marriage down more than three centuries. Always private, the late-C20th death of the reclusive last of the direct line revealed a veritable time capsule, with exquisite rooms ‘no-one had been in for 50 years’.


While the Rouse-Boughton name may be that most associated with Downton Hall, it is not there now nor was it there at the beginning. In the latter part of the C17, funded by income from legal services, the Wredenhall, Pearce and Shepherd/Hall families had begun acquiring parcels of land north-east of Ludlow, separately but sometimes together. Intermarriage would further coalesce their interests. In 1726 sergeant-at-law William Hall devised his property in trust to create an inheritance for the use of his sister, Elizabeth Shepherd, who had married Wredenhall Pearce in 1722. Several generations of asset consolidation was reaching critical mass: a statement country seat was soon called for.


see: Jeremy Bolwell @ geograph

‘On a magnificent hilltop site looking eastward to Titterstone Clee,’ Pearce upgraded the house of his grandfather, Richard Wredenhall, to a fine mansion of local brick and stone quoins.2 Downton’s three-storey, nine-bay east facade with projecting wings was the work of William Smith, Jnr., and very much in keeping with the foursquare house style of the prolific Midlands practice established by his father Francis and his namesake uncle.

In 1760 the south front would undergo another signature makeover this time at the hands of local architect/engineer Thomas Farnolls Pritchard at the behest of Wredenhall Pearce’s son and heir, William Pearce Hall.


see: Sue Bremner

A narrow, pedimented entrance doorway was introduced between characteristic full-height canted bays, a demure exterior belying the exuberant delights within. For Pritchard had dug into his contacts book, most likely calling in trusty Italian stuccatore to produce the ‘magnificent mid-C18th interiors [which remain] largely intact’.2

One young American visitor to Downton, writing home to her family a century on, was suitably impressed with their achievements: ‘Lunch was served in a very fine room…


see source


Country Life7

… they say altogether more beautifully embellished than any other dining room in the area. Some admirable portraits are inserted into the walls, and around them are white plaster frames in relievo corresponding to other ornamental work. The whole produces a beautiful, and to me novel, effect.’


Country Life


Country Life

Bigger and better yet is the saloon where, beneath ‘a large ceiling oval encircled by a vine wreath’2, hand-carved ‘trophies of the chase and music appear, united to pendants of flowers and oak-leaf festoons’.3 This decoration continues in the passage and also adorns the stair.

Now with sufficient means any amount of finery might be acquired; improved social status was generally harder to come by. However, in the same year that Pritchard had been contracted to enhance Downton, another country seat some 75 miles east in Warwickshire had welcomed the arrival of a son and heir to a venerable estate and a baronetcy created in 1641. It was a title soon destined for Downton Hall as a consequence of the controversial premature demise of Sir Theodosius Boughton, 7th Bt., in 1781.


see source

Twenty-year-old Theodosius lived at Lawford Hall (r), near Rugby, with his mother, sister and brother-in-law Capt. John Donellan. The young baronet’s somewhat feckless, impulsive nature did not augur well for the family fortune of which he would shortly be master. Just months before he attained his majority an ailing Theodosius was administered a draught, ostensibly medicinal, by his mother. Two days later he was dead.

Days of fevered speculation about the cause of the young Sir’s death prompted a public exhumation and autopsy in the churchyard at Newbold-on-Avon, traditional resting place of the Boughton line. Certain cadaverous odours, combined with the reportedly suspicious behaviour of Donellan (whose wife now stood to benefit) led to the latter’s arraignment at Warwick Crown Court before notorious ‘hanging’ judge, Justice Buller. Though the evidence against Boughton’s brother-in-law was entirely circumstantial, judge and jury lost little time in finding Donellan guilty of murder by poisoning and he was hanged within days, protesting his innocence to the end.

Meanwhile, over in Herefordshire, one particular gentleman could not disguise his delight at the turn of events. “Wonderful news,” wrote Edward Boughton, a distant relative of the ‘victim’ upondowntonaaroom2 learning that he, as eldest surviving great-grandson of the 4th baronet, now assumed the title. (This whole affair would be recounted at Downton, left, in a 2010 edition of the BBC celebrity genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?)

Sir Edward – lamented as ‘indolent’ by his mother yet whose memorial records a man ‘of inviolable honour and integrity’ – died in 1794, unmarried but the father of several daughters by a maid-servant, to the eldest of whom he left the family’s Poston Court estate. His brother Charles, though slighted by this act, duly became the ninth baronet and was hardly destitute having already married Catherine, only daughter and sole heiress of William Pearce Hall of Downton Hall.


I now consider myself bound in Honour, as well as urged by Affection, to declare that my Inclination, my Attachment, my high Opinion of your Merits remain unaltered.’

downtonaaChasA somewhat stilted declaration from Charles Boughton whose object was not, on this occasion, Catherine Pearce of Downton but his first love, Charlotte Clavering whom Charles had encountered during thirteen years at the anvil of empire in India. Theirs would be a protracted, long-distance relationship complicated by the influence of variously-motivated third parties. Ultimately rebuffed upon his return to England the thwarted suitor soon entered parliament as Charles Boughton-Rouse, MP for Evesham (having previously inherited the Worcestershire estate of Rous Lench from a distant cousin, Thomas Phillips-Rouse).

I have a clear £1,500 a year to spend. Debts I have none. Even the expenses of my late Election are completely satisfied. I shall wait with the most anxious impatience to learn that the Alliance I propose is favoured with your approbation.”


see source

All of which was music to the ears of William Pearce Hall, by this time a man with debts aplenty who would gladly hand over not just his daughter Catherine – Boughton-Rouse’s new object of desire (captured, left, in a full-length portrait of 1785 by George Romney) – but also his Downton Hall estate as swiftly as matters could be arranged.4 Having reasserted his family name on inheriting the Boughton baronetcy after the death of his brother in 1794, Sir Charles Rouse-Boughton died in 1821 leaving three daughters and a son William who, rather extraordinarily, managed to pull off the same trick as his father in marrying a ‘Downton’ heiress, albeit inadvertently.


see: Stonebrook Publishing

Eight miles south-west of Downton Hall, over the border into Herefordshire, stands Downton Castle (r), the singular Picturesque creation of aesthete Richard Payne Knight. Oddly, having invested so thoroughly, Payne Knight tired of his romantic project soon after its completion, entrusting the Castle to his brother Thomas Andrew Knight and thereafter, apparently, to his heirs male. Alas, Thomas Knight’s son would die in a shooting accident in 1827, three years after the marriage of his youngest sister Charlotte to Sir William Rouse-Boughton.

A two-year legal case followed Thomas Knight’s death in 1838, a male member of the extended Knight family contesting Sir William’s claim that Thomas’s property could indeed now flow to his daughter. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out, a ruling which would see Downton Hall and Downton Castle, and all the land between, united in the same direct ownership for the next sixteen years. (The landmark judgement in Knight vs Knight ‘is still applied by the courts today in order to determine the validity of a trust’.)


see: Historic England

It was an expanded empire of which the court victor became excessively proud, as the aforementioned young American visitor discovered in the course of a personal tour of the estate in 1852. Her party were taken on rail carriages deep into the candlelit quarries beneath Clee Hill (which had been initiated with the proviso ‘that the workings shall not be visible from Downton Hall’): ‘The whole work we were expected to consider very wonderful – and so it was.’

But its seems a little of the 10th baronet – ‘a large, stout, red-faced, white-haired gouty old gentleman’ – went a long way. ‘At dinner I sat on Sir William’s right. He talked enough for a dozen, and I was frightened at my proximity to him, for his great object is to pump everyone to see how little they know and show how much he knows. I must admit that I think Sir William a humbug and a great tyrant.’


see: cloud9photography

A dim view of the squire could not dent an admiration for the attractions of Downton Hall, however: ‘[From] an exquisitely picturesque gate and lodge you gradually ascend a range of hills through an avenue two miles long. How can I convey the glorious scene which breaks upon you as you approach the house..the beautiful vision of the valley beneath.’ (That south lodge is just one of three including in the west ‘an untouched example () of that composite Jacobean-Gothick which flourished in the West Midlands in the 1760s: provincial, unscholarly, picturesque and paper thin’.5)


see: Google Maps

In the year of Sir William’s marriage to Charlotte Knight (a precocious horticulturalist recognized for creating ‘one of the greatest cherries we have’) local architect Edward Haycock was commissioned to design a new entrance on the west side of Downton Hall (). Executed in trademark Greek Revival style, a one-storey colonnade precedes a ‘circular vestibule, shallow-domed and top-lit with Ionic columns carrying a continuous entablature’.2


BBC/Who Do You Think You Are?

In ponderous Victorian fashion, a stone balustrade incorporating the family motto in latin would be introduced atop the south and east elevations by their son, Sir Charles, 11th Bt. (d.1906), during the course of his fifty-year tenure as squire of Downton. (Downton Castle, meanwhile, had passed to his younger brother, Andrew Rouse-Boughton-Knight, descending in that line until finally being sold in 1979.)


see: Equipix

Equine pursuits would come to dominate affairs on the estate through the twentieth century. ‘Downton Hall is one of those homes that exudes fox-hunting,’ Major Sir Edward Rouse-Boughton (d. 1963) having established the North Ludlow here between the wars. This pack was later amalgamated with the Ludlow Hunt of which Lady Rouse-Boughton and their only child, Mary, would be joint-masters between 1952 and 1973.6

Though given a coming out ball at Claridge’s in the debs’ season of 1935, and a society wedding bridesmaid at least twice, the last baronet’s daughter would never marry. ‘After her mother’s death [in 1976] Miss Mary lived all alone in a single room of the lovely red-brick Georgian house. The other rooms, kept so tightly shuttered that their plastered and gilded walls are amazingly well preserved, are a time-warp back to another, more gracious age.’7


see: MERL

Mary Rouse-Boughton died in 1991. In the stable tack room a two-bar electric fire had been left on continuously for twenty years ‘in case Miss Mary’s saddles should get damp’.7 To meet death duties the Romney portrait (above) of Catherine, Lady Rouse-Boughton – ‘the finest and most valuable of that richly furnished house’s treasures’8 – was given to the nation and hangs here. (The whereabouts of another portrait also commissioned by her husband Sir Charles of his prize pig is not known.)


see: Audra Jervis

The entire Downton Hall estate was bequeathed to Mary’s great-nephew Michael ‘Micky’ Wiggin who, having ‘no idea what to do with it’, promptly invited three-time Grand National-winning racehorse trainer Capt. Tim Forster to relocate his stables there. This arrangement continues today under their respective successors, the present owner of Downton being also regional partner at a high-end estate agency yet whose own house has, ironically, never itself been sold…


1. Sunday Times, 10 March 1996.
2. Newman, J., Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Shropshire, 2006.
3. Ayscough, A., Jourdain, M. Country house baroque, 1941.
4. Fielding, M. The indissoluble knot? Public and private representations of men and marriage 1770-1830, thesis, 2012.
5. Mowl, T., Earnshaw, B. Trumpet at a distant gate, 1985.
6. Country Life, 26 February 1976.
7. Daily Telegraph, 6 January 1995.
8. Tipping, H.A. Country Life, 21 July 1917.
See also:
Reid, P. Burke’s & Savills guide to country houses, Vol.II, 1980.
Ionides, J. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard of Shrewsbury, 1999.
Ionides, J., Howell, P. The old houses of Shropshire in the C19th: the watercolour albums of Frances Stackhouse Acton, 2006.